Edinburgh International Festival: The Pastels and The Vaselines reunited

The Vaselines' Eugene Kelly and Frances McKee
The Vaselines' Eugene Kelly and Frances McKee
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With the National Museum of Scotland’s Rip It Up exhibition giving due credit to Scotland’s punk, post-punk and indie musicians, it’s only appropriate (if a little uncanny) that cult heroes The Pastels and The Vaselines should appear together on a bill curated by the similarly independent-spirited Neu! Reekie! collective for the highfalutin International Festival.

Both bands were key players in Glasgow’s fledgling DIY indie scene of the mid-to-late 80s, hanging out at legendary club night Splash One, run with a keen curatorial eye by a certain Bobby Gillespie of Primal Scream.

The Pastels and, in particular, their frontman Stephen Pastel have been a steady, supportive presence in the city’s grassroots scene ever since. The Vaselines, fronted by former couple Eugene Kelly and Frances McKee, signed to Pastels’ 53rd & 3rd label for their short, initial lifespan but achieved posthumous recognition when Kurt Cobain cited them as one of his favourite bands and covered two of their songs on Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged album. They reformed ten years ago, adding two new albums to their existing catalogue of one.

Stephen and Eugene, who have remained close friends over the years, convened for a chat about their bands’ relationship over the years.

Eugene: I was aware of Stephen because he was a local celebrity and he had records out and was in the music press.

Stephen: I think a lot of people met up around that time. There was an amazing punk audience but not an amazing punk scene. When we started it felt like maybe we were too late for things or too early, however you want to look at it.

EK: I missed punk rock. I was slightly too young and I missed everything on Top of the Pops because I was an altar boy and I was doing devotions every Thursday. It was only later on hearing Blue Boy by Orange Juice that got me interested in music. I had very limited guitar playing but when I heard The Pastels I thought: “That’s exciting because I can maybe make music like this.”

SP: A lot of the shows we played in the 80s we put on ourselves, we had to, there was no other choice and that was the kind of mentality that led Bobby and his friends to start Splash One. I think there was an intensity about it because everyone started from the position of being an outsider and then you realise that many outsiders makes something else, you become your own scene in a way.

EK: 53rd & 3rd was all very casual. Nothing was ever signed, it was a handshake deal. Stephen organised everything.

SP: Quite often if we were going on tour, The Vaselines would come with us. By then there were a few groups who really wanted to be Primal Scream but The Vaselines seemed like something else.

EK: Then it was scrappy and ramshackle and exciting but I think that scuzzy mayhem wouldn’t really cut it now. I hate the word but it’s a much more professional version of the band now.

SP: I once got invited onstage to play the bicycle horn on Molly’s Lips when The Vaselines got back together.

EK: It was Stephen’s idea to use the bicycle horn. We’ve actually got four horns in a flight case so we take it quite seriously now.

SP: Frances has become much more foul-mouthed.

EK: Back then, we were both pretty quiet but I would at least say something, Frances said nothing. And then we got back together and Frances is like Roy ‘Chubby’ Brown! Every gig is like therapy about our failed relationship from 30 years ago. We’re processing that with every show, we’ll get to some kind of closure at some point and then we can split up.

SP: It’s quite odd having a conversation like this. I didn’t think The Pastels would run this long, I didn’t think The Vaselines would run this long. When you’re in your twenties, you make mistakes with relationships but if you are able to carry on, you can learn from it.

I really like being in a rehearsal room with all the people who play in The Pastels now. In the 80s we sort of liked each other but it wasn’t always like-minded. It would be bad-tempered and egotistical and in the middle of that you would do something good like Baby Honey or Truck Train Tractor.

EK: I’m really glad The Vaselines split up when they did because I think we could have made some terrible records through the 90s. We could have gone quite dance rock. We’re still playing shows occasionally but I’m not sure if we’ll ever write or record again.